An animal in peril can inflame British public opinion like nothing else. Nearly 120 years ago, the fate of one small brown dog caused rioting in the streets of London, to say nothing of the protest marches to Trafalgar Square and questions asked in parliament.
Now the astonishing, little-known story – involving anti-vivisectionist campaigners, an eminent doctor, a legal battle and a controversial memorial statue in a park – is the subject of a new book and of a fresh campaign to honour the lowly terrier at the heart of it all.
In the early 1900s, the “Brown Dog affair” caused a level of national concern that went beyond even the recent furore surrounding the death of Geronimo the alpaca. It surpassed even the hot-tempered debate over the planeload of rescue pets flown from Kabul to Britain last month.
An “affair” that made headlines and provoked disorder, but has since been forgotten, the Brown Dog story is a tale that has “obsessed” the imagination of first-time novelist Paula S Owen ever since she heard it.
“The book and the campaign really are a dream come true for me after all this time,” Owen said this weekend before the publication of Little Brown Dog, her fictionalised account of historic events. “I’ve been obsessed with this story for so long, it’s fantastic to know it has been told.”
The extraordinary row began with the public vivisection of a stray dog carried out in 1903 by Dr William Bayliss, a renowned physiologist who was also instrumental in the discovery of hormones. Operating alongside his brother-in-law, Professor Ernest Starling, Bayliss demonstrated the procedure to medical students at University College London, including a duo of undercover Swedish feminists and animal rights campaigners, Leisa Schartau and Louise Lind-af-Hageby. The operation, the women declared in their diary, was cruel and unnecessary, and the dog, which had been previously experimented on, had not been properly anaesthetised.
Months later, the campaigners recruited the help of a barrister Stephen Coleridge, a descendant of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. He spoke out in public against Bayliss, prompting, first, an action for slander, and then one for libel, once the accusations of cruelty had been repeated in print.
The case quickly became a cause célèbre, discussed across the country, and when Coleridge eventually lost the case, Britain’s animal lovers were enraged. A fundraising drive resulted in the erection of a statue in Battersea, south London, to commemorate the life of the stray dog. But, as Owen explains in a note at the end of her novel, in the 1900s the nation was not prepared to let a deceased dog lie.
The issue, she recounts, “became a lightning rod for continuing disturbances, riots, and rallies across London. [The statue] was subjected to repeated attacks by outraged medical students. And was defended by the equally outraged working-class locals of Battersea, plus a cast list of feminists, suffragists and suffragettes, trade unionists, radical liberals and anarchists. The situation became a national talking point and was debated in parliament. The statue was protected, at great expense, day and night, by the police.”
Eventually the council acted, taking down the statue covertly at night. It has never been seen since.
But on Sunday Owen is to visit the spot in Battersea’s Latchmere recreation ground where the statue once stood to launch her campaign for a new monument to the terrier. She will put up a carefully re-created lightweight model.
“It’s incredible that the team who helped me have made something so realistic and 3D from a grainy old picture,” she said.
Owen, who is Welsh but lives in south London, has worked as a climate change campaigner and environmentalist. Her factual book about the Brent Spar controversy of 1995, when Greenpeace fought Shell’s plan to sink a decommissioned North Sea oil storage and loading platform in the Atlantic, is being adapted for a television series. And she sees a clear link between the animal protection story at the heart of her novel and her environmental work.
“This isn’t simply the tragic tale of one stray dog, appallingly treated and abused in a less enlightened age,” she has written. “Nor is the hysteria, violence and bewildering behaviour directed at a lump of stone and metal – so feared by authorities it drove them to steal and destroy it – the main focus of the novel.
“It’s more complicated than that. The whole sorry episode is an echo, a mirror, reflecting the endless injustices and evil carried out by humans on other species throughout history.”
Her novel is being published by Honno Press, a supporter of Welsh women’s writing for 35 years, and Owen said it keeps very close to the facts. “I have stayed true to events but I have changed the key characters a little. My surgeon is Bayling and my heroines are now British ≠ one upper class and one a working-class young woman from Wales.”
On Wednesday, when Owen launches her book and the new statue campaign, it will be the 115th anniversary of the day the original Brown Dog statue was unveiled to gathered celebrities, including Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.
In the spirit of the words of Lena, Owen’s fictional heroine, who argues “our humanity is defined by how we treat, respect and nurture other species, not just our own kind”, the author now says she hopes her book will ask: “Can we say, hand on heart, we are any more ‘humane’ today than we were one hundred years ago?”